Let’s Go To The Movies

by Nancy Bestor

img_0078On a recent rainy weekend in Portland, Bob, Emily and I spent a late afternoon in one of the Rose City’s many independent movie theaters, enjoying the new Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week. The movie, along with original footage of their complete 1965 Shea Stadium concert, was excellent, but equally outstanding was the fact that Cinema 21, along with many other movie theaters in and around Portland, serves beer that you can take right on in to the movie with you.

I vividly remember the first time Bob and I went to a movie theater that served beer. It was McMenamin’s Kennedy School in Portland. And not only do they serve beer at this former elementary school turned hotel/restaurant/bar/theater, they also serve pizza and offer couch seating. I was flabbergasted, but in a good way. A visit to the Kennedy School is well worth your while, even if you’re not going to a movie. The fabulous redesign of classrooms and such into a multipurpose establishment, complete with a detention bar, warrants a visit.

On another occasion we saw What We Do in the Shadows—a mockumentary about vampires—at the Hollywood Theater, where they’ve put in high narrow “cocktail tables” between each row, that offer the perfect spot to set your beverage and popcorn.

Perhaps it’s the novelty (for me at least, not for most Portlanders), but if beer is on offer when I’m going to the movies, I can’t really NOT get one. I recognize that beer and movies together might not work for every theater. As a theater owner, f you have to limit your clientele to 21 and over, you lose a significant share of the movie going public. But beer, popcorn, and a movie? As an adult with adult children, this is a movement I can get behind.

Penguins Are So Sensitive to My Needs

by Nancy Bestor

When planning our recent trip to New Zealand’s South Island, there was one activity on our “must do” list—an evening visit to see Blue Penguins (the world’s smallest penguin) return from a day of fishing at sea to their nesting burrows in Oamaru. Little did we know that a visit to Oamaru and the penguins would also mean that we would have our minds blown in a space-time travel gateway known as “The Portal” at Steampunk HQ. But first the penguins.

Blue penguins breed on the coastal mainland and islands of New Zealand and Southern Australia. Measuring about 30 cm (about 12 inches) tall, the penguins are not active on land in the day, as they are either at sea fishing or hiding in their nesting burrows. But just after dusk, groups of penguins arrive back from their hard day’s work, and waddle onto shore and up into the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Owned by the local government, the facility started in 1992 as a safe harbor for the blue penguins, and now boasts more than 75,000 visitors a year. We booked well in advance, as the tour regularly sells out.

dsc05083

Visitors have two options, “general entry”—seating in an outdoor viewing grandstand for 350 people—or “premium viewing” that offers seating much closer to the penguins and their route from the shore to their burrows. The difference in price was about $11 US dollars per person, ($31 compared to $20), but it is certainly worth it, as there was a huge difference in viewing distance!

Guides offered some information about the penguins before it got dark, but once dusk ended, no sound was allowed, to keep from scaring the penguins. No photos or electronic devices of any kind were allowed either, and it was astonishing to me how many times the guides had to ask people to put away their phones and cameras. One guide finally threatened a woman that he would throw her out if he saw her phone out of her purse again.

As the penguins waddled onto shore it was just as adorable as I expected it to be. The guides watched with binoculars as the groups swam toward shore, so we had warning when each group would arrive, and they seemed to travel in packs of 10-12. More than 75 came onto shore that evening, and they were a delight to behold. I wish I had photos to share with you (see paragraph above), but alas, I am not a rule breaker. We visited in early February, which is the tail end of the penguin season. During high season (December and early January), as many as 200 penguins come onto shore each night.

Another “attraction” of Oamaru is New Zealand’s premier Steampunk experience, Steampunk HQ. Before visiting New Zealand, I didn’t know exactly what Steampunk was. And after visiting Steampunk HQ, I still don’t know exactly what Steampunk is. Apparently, Steampunk started as a science fiction sub-genre. Today, in addition to literature, Steampunk is also used to describe fashion, art, architecture, and more. Steampunk HQ is a museum/gallery of sorts, but just like I can’t describe the term Steampunk very well, it’s also hard to describe HQ. It features exhibits, art, movies, and the above referenced space time travel gateway.

dsc05023

When we bought our $7 entrance tickets, the Steampunk HQ host strongly advised us not to miss “The Portal,” a light machine that “transports you to alternate realities.” He told us once we experienced the Portal, we would want to go back in and do it again. He encouraged us to follow our instinct and take another trip. Without giving too much away, I’ll describe the Portal as an incredibly awesome light and sound experience. We loved it, and we were under the influence of no substances whatsoever.  We did indeed take a second, and then a third trip through the Portal. I can tell you without hesitation that the Portal alone is worth the price of admission to Steampunk HQ.

Oamaru is a cute, quaint and sleepy town. It’s worthy of a stop even if you don’t make it to the Penguin Colony or Steampunk HQ. But these two attractions elevate Oamaru to a must see when on a tour of New Zealand’s South Island.

dsc05075

Notes:

  • We stayed at the Criterion Hotel, a simple historic hotel built in 1877, with rooms above a lovely bar and restaurant. Our room with private bath was about $80 a night. The hotel and pub are the cornerstone building at the edge of Oamaru’s restored Victorian precinct.
  • The two-block Victorian precinct is also home to many preserved buildings, and houses unusual shops, galleries and more. It’s a great browsing/shopping neighborhood. We ate some terrific savory pies at the Harbour Street Bakery, and sampled delicious locally made ice cream at Deja Moo.
  • We also ate a splendid Italian dinner at Cucina 1871. This was a popular spot, seemingly for both locals and tourists, and I’m still thinking about the Ricotta/Walnut/Pesto Ravioli I ate there.

We’re Only Happy When We’re Shopping

by Nancy Bestor

I’m fascinated with markets. Show me a market—any kind, anywhere, but especially overseas—and I am happy to wander aimlessly up and down aisle after aisle, perusing the goods on sale, watching folks make purchases, and getting a glimpse into how people in other countries live their lives. On our recent visit to Bangkok, Bob and I visited their Amulet Market, Flower Market, Talingchan Floating Market, Flashlight Market, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Wang Lung Market—all in just four days. Each and every market was mesmerizing, just like Bangkok itself.

When our frequent flyer tickets routed us through Thailand’s capital, on our way to New Zealand, we thanked our lucky stars, and arranged to stop over for five nights. We’d last visited Thailand 13 years ago, and had only spent two days in Bangkok, so we felt we were long overdue for another visit. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which, although it required extra work to get to and from, proved to be a highlight of our trip. The Siamotif Hotel is an old wooden house, the hotel owner’s original family home. It is located in the traditional district of Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thailand standards, our hotel was stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and included a full and delicious breakfast each morning. We could not have been happier. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required us to take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferries and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm.

DSC03632

We had no real agenda for our stay, other than to soak up as much Thai culture as we could, and there is no better way to experience Thai culture than at an open-air market. Markets in Bangkok are everywhere, and on our first morning, we took the taxibus to the Talingchan Floating Market, where we feasted on many Thai delicacies, including mango sticky rice and a whole fish—snakehead—with a delicious spicy green dipping sauce. Talingchan is a starting point for canal boat tours. We took a great one, semi-private (with just four others), for less than $5 each. The long boat toured us through the waterways, and for about an hour we saw Thai life from the river, up close and personal.

The Amulet Market was another hit that first day, where serious shoppers (all Thai, we were the only tourists) used loupes to closely inspect statues, buddhas and other talismans. The market was not well lit, and with statues and other talismans staring out at us as we strolled the aisles, it was quite atmospheric.

DSC03808

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is likely the biggest market I have ever visited. The largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak has over 8,000 stalls, broken into 27 sections. Even with a map of the market, it is easy to get turned around, and from personal experience, if you see something you like, you should buy it, because you may never be able to find it again. We ate great Thai soups, then Pad Thai and papaya salad a little later (wandering in markets makes me hungry) and finally topped our meal off with coconut ice cream, which was the bomb. Our visit to Chatuchak Market was capped off with a foot massage. For 45 minutes, two very strong-handed Thai women rubbed and massaged our feet and lower legs, all for the low price of $5. I could definitely get used to that.

Another fantastic market was the Pak Klong Talad, or in words we can all understand, the Bangkok Flower Market. Although it’s open 24 hours a day, this market really gets going late in the evening and continues into the wee hours of the morning, as that is when fresh flowers are set up, and restaurants and hotels come to buy them. We were on a night bike tour when we visited (more on that in a future email newsletter), and were able to ride our bikes right through several of the market’s warehouses. Once we parked our bikes and walked along the market lanes, we were able to smell the tremendous variety of deliciously aromatic and beautiful flowers for sale. A visit to this market is a sensuous delight.

DSC03843

Food stalls at all the markets produce an amazing variety of dishes that are both delicious and incredibly cheap. We got fairly good at ordering and eating small portions, so we could try more things more frequently. On our last trip to Thailand, one of our local tour guides told us that most Thais eat many meals out, because it is inexpensive (and dare I say delicious) for them as well.

DSC03739

Another great window shopping experience was a visit to the religious shops block, Th Bamrung Meuang, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest streets. While not a traditional market, these two blocks house shop after shop of religious paraphernalia, including Buddha statues the size of a car, garb for buddhist monks, altars, and much more. This was fascinating, and again, we appeared to be the only tourists.

DSC03696

We read in our Lonely Planet guide about a Bangkok neighborhood in which several families still make traditional monk alms bowls out of steel and copper. They are the only remaining folks that still make these bowls, as most monks today use inexpensive factory made bowls. The narrow street showcases a handful of different families working outside their somewhat ramshackle shops, hammering away at their creations. It was impossible for us to walk down this narrow alley and not buy a bowl. They are formed from eight separate pieces of steel, representing the eightfold path of Buddhism. The pieces are then fused with copper, and polished with black lacquer. They are beautiful, and we ended up carting home two of them in our suitcases. I highly recommend a stop here.

Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible for us to duplicate authentic Thai food at home. We can make good American Thai food, but it simply doesn’t compare to the real thing. Every once in a while, however, when I pull out some Thai seasonings, I smell something that reminds me of those Bangkok markets, and I smile. I’m ready to go back and wander the markets of Thailand some more.

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

by Nancy Bestor

seatIs upgrading to economy plus worth the cost? I’ve ignored the many offers I’ve seen when booking tickets online that say something like “Nancy, for just a few dollars more, you can upgrade to economy plus!” Obviously, it hasn’t been worth it to me to pay lots more for a seat with just a little more legroom. But depending on the length of the flight, the extra inches on offer, and the cost, perhaps it’s something I’ll consider in the future.

A very detailed report by www.independenttraveler.com says that if you book your ticket well in advance, premium economy is about 85% more expensive than regular economy. But it’s only 10-35% more expensive when booked closer to your travel date. The report goes on to say that many airlines drop the price of premium seats on the day of travel, so it’s best to check online 24 hours before your flight.

I’d say there’s hardly any chance at all that I’m going to pay 85% more for an economy plus ticket, but I might pay 10%, especially if my flight was 4+ hours.

IMG_0770

The other thing to keep in mind is what you’re actually getting in a “premium seat”. The same report says that the seat pitch in standard United economy is 31 inches, while in economy plus it is 34. I can’t see myself being willing to pay any money for just three more inches of legroom. But I will admit that I’m of moderate height at 5’ 6”. If I were 6’ 2”, I might sing a different tune.

All this being said, I’d recommend doing your homework before paying for an economy plus seat. Find out exactly what you’re getting for the increase in price. Take a look at www.seatguru.com to see what the seats are like in the exact plane that you will be flying on. And then decide if you’re willing to roll the dice and see if economy plus seats on your flight really do get cheaper the closer you get to flying. I know it’s only money, but (on United at least) it’s also only three inches.

Driving in My Car, Smoking My Cigar

by Nancy Bestor

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Bob and I saw the Buena Vista Social Club last week, and while listening to their fantastic Cuban rhythms, I got to thinking about what a bad dancer I am, and that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to make my hips sway. Then a light bulb went off—dance lessons! What a great excuse for a trip to Cuba! And today, JetBlue flew the first commercial flight in over 50 years between the United States and Cuba. The plane took off from Fort Lauderdale and landed in Santa Clara, a journey of just one hour and four minutes.

I’m pretty sure this is a sign that Bob and I should buy some dancing shoes and book a flight to Havana. Here are the details on the travel restrictions.

Travelers need a valid passport and visa to travel from the United States to Cuba. The visa can be obtained through the Cuban Embassy, although it sounds like it is not the easiest process, and it can take a long while.

Embassy of the Republic of Cuba
2630 16th street NW

Washington, DC 20009

www.cubadiplomatica.cu/eeuu/EN/Home.aspx
recepcion@usadc.embacuba.cu

(202) 797-8518 – Ext. 600

Travel to Cuba must fall into one of 12 authorized categories. This includes workshops (dance classes!), visits to family, religious activities and humanitarian projects, to name a few. Americans are no longer required to apply for a license for such travel. Instead, it is now on the honor system. When purchasing your airline ticket, simply check the box of the type of authorized travel you will be doing in Cuba. You must keep receipts for five years after your trip.

numberplate-in-cuba-1450630

The Cuban government requires all visitors to have health insurance that covers the territory of Cuba. For Americans, this means local Cuban health insurance. JetBlue’s fares include a $25 surcharge for Cuban health insurance (provided by Asistur).

There is more fine print, including what you can and can’t bring into Cuba, but JetBlue does a great job of clearly answering most questions here, something that was not easy to find many other places on the Internet.

Although there are a few hoops that must be jumped through, I’m totally up for the challenge. Especially when I imagine what my moves will look like after a few days of Cuban dance lessons.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Want

by Nancy Bestor

When our children were growing up, they loved staying in hotels of all shapes and sizes. They were quite enamored with hotel features and amenities. They loved sitting in fancy chairs in the lobby. They loved taking turns pressing the elevator buttons. They loved swimming in hotel pools. They loved the mini shampoo bottles and the ice machines down the hall.

DSC05059

I get it. Hotel stays sometimes feel like an escape from regular life. But I can safely say that at 49 years old, I don’t love every hotel I stay in. I’m not so excited by elevator buttons, or swimming pools, or mini shampoo bottles and ice machines. I’ll be honest, I’m a little more discriminating these days. I like quality accommodations. I value sheets with high thread counts and comfortable mattresses. I like roomy bathrooms filled with plenty of soft towels and good toilet paper.

2015-03-23 13.42.41

But if I could bend your ear (or your eyeballs) and tell you about my ultimate dream hotel, it has all of the things I mentioned above (particularly the good toilet paper), as well as some kind of old world charm and/or small family feel to it. I like a little history, but at the same time, I like modern conveniences. I like hotels that are run by families, or people who feel like family. I’m not interested in high-rise structures with hundreds of rooms, but rather prefer an old building that has been a hotel for a hundred years, or a home or unusual structure that has been converted to a hotel. We’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years and we’ve been fortunate to find more than a few unique ones along the way, that also offer many of the amenities I prize.

DSC03793

In New Zealand for example, we stayed at two different “pub” hotels, where rooms were either next door to, or above, a cozy local drinking establishment. Although I worried about the potential noise, in both cases, it was just as quiet as a typical hotel room. In Bangkok, we stayed at Siamotif, a small, family run hotel that had been converted from the owner’s original family home. In Shanghai, we stayed at the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1846 and boasts a past guest list that includes Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Ulysses S. Grant. And in Memphis, we watched the ducks parade in each morning of our stay from their penthouse suite on the hotel roof to the fountain in the lobby at the Peabody Hotel. Now I’ll admit, they didn’t all have sheets with high thread count, but I was willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for a little history and a lot of charm.

DSC05070

Maybe the hotel offers guests a lovely local drink when they check in. Perhaps they provide snacks and/or drinks at happy hour every day. Maybe they leave handwritten notes from housekeeping making sure guests have everything they need. These are the little extras that excite me.

The cities of the world offer an abundance of hotels that travelers can choose to stay in when visiting. My ideal hotel certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it’s exactly what I aspire to find when hotel shopping. Here are a few of the things Bob and I do when looking for a hotel. We Google “unique hotels” for our destination and then spend lots of time (arguably too much) reading reviews from other hotel guests. We look at as many pictures (those published by the hotel and by guests as well) as we can find. And then, when we book, we try and make sure our booking can be canceled in the event we find something better.

DSC02646

Of course we are not always successful. Sometimes our number one choice is too expensive. Sometimes there are no vacancies. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But that just makes the times we do find them that much more special.

I Want to Ride My Bicycle – I Want to Ride My Bike

by Nancy Bestor

DSC04401Now that both our children are away at college, I’ve been on a search for “my thing”. I need a hobby (that isn’t reading on the couch) that I can become passionate about. I’ve started playing the guitar, am trying to hike and walk more often with girlfriends, and have also increased my road bike riding. Thus when Bob suggested we rent bikes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and go for a 30+ mile ride, I was an enthusiastic yes. And when we picked up a map from the bike rental agency, and I saw that the ride we would be doing was considered “moderate,” I gave two enthusiastic thumbs up. Little did I know that New Zealand’s idea of moderate and my idea of moderate are two very different things.

Our plan of attack was to bike to Arrowtown for lunch, then roll on to the town of Gibbston, where we would finish at a winery with a glass or two of Central Otago’s finest varietals before the bike rental shuttle picked us up and drove us back into Queenstown. Actually, we had originally planned to ride out to Arrowtown and Gibbston, and then back to Queenstown, but Lisa, the incredibly kind, knowledgeable and reasonable woman at the rental agency, talked us out of that, and convinced us that our ride would be long enough if we took a shuttle back. Thanks to Lisa, Bob and I will celebrate another wedding anniversary.

DSC04412

In the beginning, on our mountain bikes, our ride was flat and lovely. We started out going around the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu, on an extremely well signed and well-maintained gravel bike path. Then we rode along a river, also lovely and fairly easy. We had the bike trail almost to ourselves and to begin with, it was nothing but lovely vistas of rolling hills and snow capped peaks and pedestrian/biker-only bridges that span some of the bluest rivers in the world. I began to feel like bike riding might really be “my thing”. I started picturing myself riding Cycle Oregon, and/or choosing a century ride in a beautiful location. But that’s where the easy ended and (in my humble opinion) we skipped right over the moderate category and into difficult. There were many uphill climbs and switchbacks—damn those switchbacks. I got off my bike twice because I just didn’t think I could keep pedaling fast enough to stay upright. This is when I started thinking that maybe sewing or quilting might be a better “thing” for me.

DSC04429

The views were still lovely, but I was concentrating pretty darn hard on keeping my legs going in a circular motion. I did indeed make it to the top of Thompson’s Hill, which was the end of the hard part. From there we had about six more miles to make it to Arrowtown, a very cute gold-rush town with many original buildings. We ate lunch there, and quaffed a beer to replenish the thousands and thousands of calories we had burned off in the three hours so far. The lunch and beers were delicious.

DSC04392

After lunch, we hopped back on our bikes, energy renewed for the final eight-mile ride to Gibbston. Along the way we rode over the Kawarau Bridge, “world home” of bungee jumping. Many, many brave souls were waiting their turn to bungee 43 meters to the river below. We stopped to catch our breath watch a few bungee jumps. The music was pumping, people were cheering, and one poor young woman was sobbing as she gathered the courage to jump off the bungee ledge. (The mother in me really wanted to go over to her and tell her that perhaps if she was crying so hard about this upcoming jump, she really shouldn’t do it, but I kept my mouth shut.) I can say, without a doubt, that bungee jumping will never be “my thing.”

DSC04430

Our bike ride ended at the Gibbston Valley Winery. We bought a flight of wines with a cheese pairing and sat our weary butts down on a hard bench and relished in our accomplishment. Soon our van driver arrived, and it just so happened to be Lisa, the same woman who convinced us to arrange a shuttle. I bowed down to her in gratitude.

So I guess my take away from this adventure was that century rides might not be my thing. And bungee jumping is definitely not my thing either. But spirited bike rides that end in wine and cheese pairings???…….now we may be getting somewhere.

Notes:

  • Our day-long bike rental, including the shuttle pickup, cost $127 in US dollars for both of us. I don’t know how much of that was the shuttle pickup, but in my opinion, it was priceless.
  • If you’re crazy brave enough to bungee jump at the Kawarau Bridge, the cost for one jump is about $140 (US).
  • Arrowtown looks like a cute town to browse in. My legs just didn’t have the energy to do so. We ate at the Fork & Tap, in a charming historic building. We also got delicious sticky buns (which came highly recommended) at Provisions.
  • Our waitress at the Fork & Tap had never before heard of Root Beer.